Sunday, September 23, 2012

Permanent Disbelief & Its Impact On Government Public Affairs

"Permanent Spin" has an eye-catching headline but the Weekly Standard article makes a pretty routine claim: You can't trust the government.

This article in particular focused on political PR, criticizing the Administration for refusing to label several terrorist attacks for what they were. Jibes like this fly from both sides of the aisle and in popular culture; even Saturday Night Live joined the fray with a satirical skit mocking a candidate for secretly taped remarks at a fundraiser that undermined his carefully crafted public messaging.

Sometimes political PR goes off-the-cuff, and people can't decide whether it's a good thing or bad. The New York Times reported on the angst within the party that followed unscripted remarks at a national political convention. The New Republic had mixed reviews but admitted that it could be "accidental political genius." Others said flat out that it was in fact "genius," no miscalculation at all.

In the civil service there is PR too, but we call it "public affairs." People don't trust that either. A good example is the explosion of conspiracy theories surrounding a posting by the Social Security Administration of their intent to buy 174,000 hollow-point bullets. (Not just bullets mind you but "hollow-point," which sound extra-scary for an Agency you think of as primarily in the business of distributing elderly people the savings they worked for all those years.)

According to FBO.gov the solicitation was posted on August 7, 2012. A keyword search on Google of "social security" and "bullets" for the dates August 7-15 yielded more than 7,000 results. The article at Business Insider had a typical introductory paragraph with alarm bells:
"First the DHS needed 450 million rounds of ammunition, then the NOAA requested 46,000 rounds, now we've discovered an online request at FBO.gov calling for 174,000 rounds of ammunition for the Social Security Administration (SSA)."
Finally, a week after the original solicitation was posted, Social Security put an item in its blog (not on its homepage, nor Press Releases and News - explaining the the ammunition was for law enforcement and public safety purposes. (Note that there is no link that I can find from the Agency's website homepage to the blog.)

To put it mildly, the blog post did not exactly put out the flames of the conspiracy theory rumor mill, especially given the purchases of ammunition by other Federal agencies. Reported the Chicago Tribune:
Even late night talk show host Jay Leno joked, "What senior citizens are they worried about? I mean, who's going to storm the building?"
It was not untypical for the official response to be later rather than sooner. And it's not surprising that such a delayed reaction is ineffective.

What is hard to understand is this: If we know that people don't trust PR ("spinmeisters") in general, and they don't trust any representatives of government either, why do we continue to act as if the public hangs on our every word?

I would go so far as to say that the public is in a state of "permanent disbelief" at all official statements. Or perhaps "suspension of belief." Or "constant skepticism."

Call it what you want, it seems that it is time to match strategy with reality. If you know that you are abou to do something controversial or discordant with your audience's expectations of you (e.g., buy ammunition for an Agency that doesn't seem to be about law enforcement) then it makes sense to let people know ahead of time that you're about to do so.

But even that is not enough. If you know that your actions will be perceived skeptically, rather than defensively hide the explanation on a blog unlinked to your website, it makes sense to put a big and clear feature story on the homepage for a good week or two.

And when you put that feature story out there, it's probably also a good idea to add some facts, figures, historical examples, and other concrete data out that show you have a really good reason for doing what you did.

Plus make a senior official available for interviews to respond. Anything from mainstream media, to bloggers, to daytime talkshows and late night TV - wherever the audience goes. Yes, even to outlets that are critical of you - especially those!

While it's impossible to completely defuse skepticism about the validity of government communication, it is absolutely possible, necessary and required to do a better job of talking with our audience rather than at them. The goal is never to make up stories or mislead, but rather to promote a positive working relationship unfettered by secret doubts about what's going on behind the scenes.

Good PR is ethical PR, and that includes being transparent as much as security concerns will allow. There's nothing wrong with engaging an Agency's critics. In fact, that is the very definition of citizen engagement - to go where the issues are, not just for the feel-good outreach campaign hurrahs.

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